'Slab' conviction cannot be hailed as a victory over cross-border crime
We are still a long way from erasing the fear that was wreaked by 'untouchable' dissidentrepublicans, writes Dearbhail McDonald
Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30
Politicians of all hues are constantly falling over each other to prove who is "toughest" on crime.
The 'solutions' they propose (internment and the like) are at times extreme - Trumpesque, if you like - but nothing is off the table, especially in the run up to a general election. It's hard to believe, but we've been in a permanent state of emergency since 1939 and we introduce special powers like snuff at a wake.
And yet often it's the little things that are the major game changers. Intelligent innovations the likes of which led to last week's landmark conviction, for tax fraud, of Thomas 'Slab' Murphy (inset), the ethereal Republican icon lauded by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
The 'butterfly effect' myth holds that the mere flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas. It can't, but we know that minor perturbations in one area can cause chaos in others.
Little did Slab Murphy know, for example, that when Limerick gangster Liam Keane swaggered out of court almost 10 years ago with a two-finger salute after his murder trial collapsed - because six prosecution witnesses recanted statements - that it would contribute to his own criminal downfall.
Here's why: following the collapse of Keane's trial, former justice minister Michael McDowell introduced a radical but succinct law to deal with certain witnesses.
Section 16 of the Criminal Justice Act (2006) permits witness statements taken by gardai to be used as evidence in a criminal trial where a witness refuses to give evidence, denies making the statement or gives evidence at trial that is materially inconsistent with their earlier statement.
The 'silver bullet' law has its critics, but it put many a gangland and lesser criminals behind bars - and it also snared Slab.
Leaving aside Slab's claims he was the victim of forgery or (my favourite) an elaborate identity theft perpetrated by his brother Patrick Murphy - who sat beside him in court - it was arguably S.16 that secured this conviction.
Prosecutor Paul Burns SC moved two S.16 applications during the nine-week trial after highlighting "inconsistencies" between two witnesses' evidence and statements given earlier to gardai.
Brian Garvey, a landowner who rented land to Slab Murphy, originally told the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) that he spoke to Slab in relation to farming matters and the rent of land the day before he made his 2005 statement.
At that time, Mr Garvey told the CAB that apart from €5,000 given to him by Slab's nephew, all of the other money was given to him by Slab.
However at the trial, the Co Meath farmer said he couldn't remember Slab ever handing him money, prompting a legal row that resulted in Mr Garvey's original statement being admitted into evidence.
The original witness statement of veterinary surgeon Patrick Flanagan was also subject to a S.16 application. Mr Flanagan initially told gardai said that he witnessed the signing by the three Murphy brothers, including Slab, of Department of Agriculture forms.
However at the trial, Mr Flanagan said he couldn't recollect anyone specific signing the forms.
The prosecution argued that this was a crucial piece of evidence.
And the presiding judge of the non-jury Special Criminal Court, Mr Justice Paul Butler, agreed to admit the original statement after remarking that Mr Flanagan was "quite plainly evasive".
The admission of the S.16 statements changed the entire dynamic of the trial. In its near fleeting 10-page ruling, the non-jury court said that it was satisfied that the S.16 evidence of the two men represented the true state of affairs, namely that Slab was a cattle farmer, one who hadn't paid income tax over a nine-year period.
The Al Capone-style tax evasion conviction is both significant and symbolic. We can now call the man whom the Sunday Times successfully named in 1985 as "the IRA's 'Officer Commanding for the whole of Northern Ireland'" - and whom the BBC says controls a €55m empire by smuggling oil, cigarettes, grain and pigs - the criminal that he is.
But in monetary terms, and given Slab's resources (he at no stage applied for criminal legal aid during his eight-year legal odyssey), the income tax conviction is arguably wee buns.
And it's doubtful whether Slab's conviction is, as the DUP's William Irwin has claimed, a victory against cross-border crime. The reality is that North Louth and South Armagh, Slab's domain (close to my native Newry), is still 'bandit country'.
We know that Slab's heartland is home to dark secrets and grotesque criminality in the form of fuel and money laundering practically conducted in the open air.
We know this from the still unsolved murder of Detective Garda Adrian Donohue and from the recent murder, also on the Cooley Peninsula, of his colleague Garda Tony Golden by a wannabe dissident thug.
We know it too from the Omerta that surrounds the unsolved, unthinkable murder of Paul Quinn.
We know from the recent reports on paramilitary activity, that the IRA members believe the Provisional Army Council (PAC) oversees both the Provos and Sinn Fein with "an overreaching strategy" and that individual members remain involved in large-scale smuggling and violence, including murders. Dissident republicans are still the untouchables.
Whether it's ordering fillet steak and Ben & Jerry's ice cream from their cells in Portlaoise, or engaging in violence, these dissident republicans are a law unto themselves. And the question we must ask, in the face of such open defiance of our democracy and Constitution, is whether a blind eye is still being turned to a certain class of criminality - and a certain cadre of criminals - to 'protect' the peace process?
The 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement was, and remains, the most significant event on this island in the last 100 years.
But those dirty wars have given birth to a fragile and grubby peace.
Spend half an hour in the Special Criminal Court to bear witness to the threats posed by dissident republicans.
Spend a day in South Armagh or North Louth to bear witness to the fear they instil and their impunity.
We must be relentless because we still have a long way to go to make sure they've really gone away.